PLANS TO inspect education authorities, heralded in a White Paper in January, have come a step closer with an HMI report on how effective councils have been in monitoring the performance of schools.
The title of the report, Closing the Circle, is intended to signal that schools will not to be alone in having their work scrutinised. Quality arrangements by education authorities will also be held to account.
The Inspectorate sees the move as part of a wider change of the way in which schools take regular stock by self-evaluation, applying performance indicators and setting targets. The Government's best value regime, aimed at monitoring the effectiveness of all local authority services is another part of the equation.
"A number of straws have come together at the same time to form a haystack," one member of the Inspectorate said.
Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, said the report confirmed the "considerable progress many education authorities have made in quality management in the relatively short time since they came into being".
But authorities still fall short in a number of respects, particularly in bringing their practices into line with best value principles, the inspectors say. One of those principles is active involvement of the users of council services, including parents and pupils.
The report concludes: "The extent to which authorities supported school boards and realised their potential varied greatly and some authorities should review their practice. The involvement of pupils in policy and decision-making was less prevalent and authorities would benefit from considering such good practice as exists."
Inspectors also found that "many authorities have difficulty in forming a clear view of the current performance of their schools and are over-reliant on link officers gathering information informally through visits to schools."
The report calls on authorities to build up a comprehensive database of schools' performance and systematically analyse and act on the results.
Although East Renfrewshire and West Lothian have invited HMI to run the rule over their quality assurance systems, there is no general enthusiasm for authorities to be inspected as the Government is proposing.
Michael O'Neill, president of the Association of Directors of Education, seized on the report to argue that it demonstrated the value of education authorities. Councils are nervous of their role under the Scottish parliament, but Mr O'Neill said they are essential to turn national policy into classroom reality.
"Both the target-setting initiative and Higher Still were rescued by the skills and professionalism of local directors," he said.
The report, surprisingly, comes down firmly on the side of education authorities.
"The fundamental importance of the education authority providing leadership and strategic direction to its schools, particularly in the area of quality improvement, was evident throughout this study," it states.